Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review: The Long Earth

Title: The Long Earth

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Pages: 424
ISBN: 9780552164085
Series: The Long Earth #1
Publisher: Corgi
Published: 2012
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

1916: the Western Front, France. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wind in the leaves in the trees. Where has the mud, blood and blasted landscape of No man's Land gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Cop Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive – some say mad, others dangerous – scientist when she finds a curious gadget: a box, containing some wiring, a three-way switch and a...potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way Mankind views its world for ever.

And that’s an understatement if ever there was one...

I’m a huge fan of both Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, so when I heard they were collaborating on a science fiction novel it immediately got added to my must-read list.

Step day changed everything. A simple device constructed from components available at any Radio Shack and powered by a potato of all things, opened the doorway to an infinite set of parallel Earths known as the Long Earth. With the flick of a switch people stepped onto another Earth, one completely untouched by the ravages of humanity. Another flick of the switch, and you were on yet another Earth, and another and another... The Long Earth was born.

The cast of characters are compelling. The main story follows Joshua Valienté a loner with a natural knack for stepping who is recruited by Lobsang, an AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repair man, to accompany him on an exploratory mission to see how far the Long Earth stretches. Lobsang’s character is a bit grating initially, but as time progresses he grows on you. There is lots of subtle humour in the relationship between Lobsang and Joshua and their witty banter provides some comic relief (although not on the same level as the Discworld novels) in an otherwise serious novel. There is a perpetual question mark about Lobsang’s true nature that keeps you guessing. Is he really a reincarnated human as he claims, or is he a very, very smart AI?

The Long Earth is also intermingled with the stories of other individuals and families as they try to carve out new lives for themselves in the Long Earth. The most notable of these, the Green family leaves everything they know behind, including their non-stepper son, to join in a pioneering expedition to start afresh on a distant Earth.

I loved the premise of The Long Earth; an infinite string of parallel Earths offering a canvas of endless possibilities and ideas to explore. Baxter and Pratchett excel at contemplating how these other Earths might have developed, how life might have evolved differently from our own and how the sudden accessibility to nearly infinite resources and space might impact human society back on the original Earth (known as Datum Earth).

“Joshua, always remember, you have not travelled back in time, or forward. You have travelled far across the contingency tree of the possible, on a planet where dramatic quasi-random extinction events periodically obliterate much of the family of life, leaving room for evolutionary innovation. On each Earth, however, the outcomes will differ, by a little or a lot..." (p. 272)

Unfortunately this focus on playing with interesting ideas results in a novel with a rather disjointed storyline. The Long Earth is mostly a travelogue chronicling Joshua and Lobsang’s voyage of exploration throughout the Long Earth. There is no real driving force aside from the journey itself. The ostensible threat they discover along the way, the reason the other hominid species are fleeing toward Datum Earth, is far too easily resolved; almost as an afterthought. The cliffhanger ending is abrupt and felt rushed and somehow unfulfilling, leaving you with little idea where the rest of the story is ultimately headed.

The Verdict:
If you can get past its flaws The Long Earth is a fascinating read, especially if you enjoy the exploration of big ideas and the sense of wonder it provides. This is the first novel in a series and it shows in the very abrupt ending. Fans of Terry Pratchett shouldn’t expect anything similar to the Discworld novels. There is some subtle humour, but Pratchett’s unique wit only makes very brief appearances. Where the novel shines is in how deftly it explores all the fascinating possibilities of evolution and how subtle changes in Earth’s history could have caused things to turn out very differently.

The Rating: 6.5 (Good)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

New Arrivals: eBook Insanity

When an offer is too good to refuse, it's just too good to refuse. I know I said I'm trying to cut down on my book buying, but Kobo lured me into yet another trap with their multiple use discount coupons. I ended up going on an insane ebook shopping spree which got just a tad out of control.

I think the image speaks for itself. I managed to grab about 90% of my wishlist so hopefully I'm set for the rest of the year. I think my TBR-pile just grew to 5 or 6 years' worth of reading material. I really should stop buying more books...

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Blind Date with Science Fiction

The American Book Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, has this great initiative where they give customers the chance to have a ‘blind date’ with their next purchase. The books are wrapped in brown paper so customers can’t judge them by their covers or see who the authors are. Labels with the genre and some content keywords provide the only clues to which novels might be lurking beneath the plain coverings. It’s like Christmas, only with book shopping and a huge dose of bookish sleuthing thrown in.

I asked Tiemen Zwaan, the mastermind behind the idea, to compile a list for a blind date with science fiction and he gladly obliged. Our version has a twist: Below you’ll find a list of 21 keywords (42 were just a tad unwieldy even though it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything). Your mission is to try to figure out which novels these clues refer to. Post your answers/guesses in the comments below and at the end of the month the actual titles will be revealed (even I don’t know the answers). Hopefully by then a couple of them will have piqued your interest enough to be worthy additions to your TBR lists.

  1. Apps for the Human Body/Corporate Politics/Antihero
  2. Melted Arctic Icecap/ New Wild Frontier/Airship Pilot
  3. Ambiguous Utopia/a World without Government/Brilliant Physicist
  4. Bored Genius/Cruel Empire/Incredible Complex Game
  5. Dystopia/Prison Experiments/Poetry
  6. Near Future/Virtual Worlds/Orcs robbing a Bank
  7. Near Future/Augmented Reality/Alzheimer
  8. Planet Spanning Shield/Earth is Doomed/Teleological Engineering
  9. Corporate Dystopia/Dr. Easy/Simulated Self is Watching You
  10. Fantasy & SF/Reality Show/ Alternate Dimension/Antihero is the Star
  11. Classic war novel/Time Dilation/Future Shock
  12. First Contact/Jesuit Mission/Mutilated Hands
  13. Colonization mission/Body adapted to Mars/Penis Removal = Trauma
  14. Visitation Zones/Alien Artefacts/Last, Tragic Foray
  15. Modified Humans/End of Slavery?/Scientific Report
  16. Unique Language/Protagonist is a Simile/Upset Equilibrium
  17. Asteroid Colony/ Water is Running Out/ Reputation Economy
  18. Self-Awareness was a Fluke/Freak Ambassadors/Chinese Room
  19. Middle Eastern Security State/Young Arab-Indian Hacker/Book of the Jinn
  20. Crowded Earth/ Extrapolation of Trends/Synthesist undercover spy
  21. Maker Culture/ New Work/ 3D Printers

Don those overcoats, charge up your laser pistols and get sleuthing!

(Google should be a weapon of last resort!)

Stumped? View the answers.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Science Fiction Short Film: Telescope

I came across this beautiful, bittersweet science fiction short film that perfectly blends the fascination I have for both astronomy and science fiction. You can nitpick about the science and the ship design (no debris shield?), but that doesn't detract from the emotional impact it has.

The quote at the end is perfect in so many ways. I don't think I have to explain why. 
 "As men tied to the Earth, we dream of visiting the stars. As men tied to the stars, we will dream of returning home."

You'll definitely want to watch this one in full screen. Enjoy!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sci-fi Month and Why I love Science Fiction

November has sneaked up on us, a brutal reminder that the year is speeding to an end leaving far too few reading days to finish yearly challenges. It also means that Sci-Fi Month hosted by Rinn Reads is in full swing. The aim of Sci-fi month is to celebrate all things science fiction and to get people who might otherwise dismiss the genre interested in what it has to offer.

The default setting for my blog is set to science fiction (sorry, bad Star Trek joke), which means that you won’t really see a big difference in the content I post. I do have some surprises planned, but they are works in progress. So be patient my young Padawans, all will be revealed in due time.

On to the big question...

Why do I love science fiction?

This is a really tough question to answer; you might as well ask me why I love breathing or why I have a fondness for the colour blue (cerulean blue to be precise). I’ve always gravitated to science fiction and I can’t really pinpoint a reason why. Perhaps it’s due to my fascination with the stars. My fondest childhood memories are about spending summer nights just staring up at a sky festooned with billions of twinkling stars. I was awestruck and humbled by their vastness. Once you know the stars you can never again fear the night. The dark becomes a place filled with marvels and mysteries. I couldn’t help but wonder what adventures and amazing discoveries waited amongst those stars. If only we could reach them...

I never lost that sense of wonder and science fiction was just a completely natural fit for me. With the turn of a page SF brings the stars within our reach and explores the big questions. The same questions I had spinning through my head during those summer nights so long ago: Are we alone in the universe? What would other planets look like? How would humanity survive out there in vastness of space? In science fiction I found a home, a place filled with authors who could teleport me to unknown worlds populated by the marvels and mysteries I longed for.

Contrary to popular belief science fiction is not just about aliens and spaceships (admittedly that’s the part I’m most interested it) but it explores the entire spectrum of subjects. Chances are that you’ll find something that fits your interests. To me science fiction is all about the ideas; to imagine what is out there, to push the boundaries of what is possible today and to imagine what might be possible tomorrow. More importantly science fiction is for everybody. If you are fascinated by interesting ideas then SF is the genre for you.

As clichéd as it sounds the reason I love science fiction is for the sense of wonder. Each novel offers the opportunity to discover something new; to see ourselves, our universe and our place in it from new perspectives and to explore the endless possibilities of the unknown. Science fiction doesn’t predict the future it inspires it!

And on that note here are some words of wisdom to guide you in your exploration of science fiction: Don't panic, they can never take the sky from you, the enemy’s gate is down, ALWAYS carry a towel and, most importantly, never forget that the truth is out there!